Christian Bale, who plays Moses in Ridley Scott’s epic biblical drama Exodus: Gods and Kings, admitted that his greatest source of reference for this very earnest, ceremonious piece, was Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.
Speaking at the film’s press conference – which took place in Paris on a bitter December morning, Bale explained why a film of such a different tone worked best for his preparation.
“It’s a fantastic film, innit? Any excuse to watch it,” he said. “t’s very easy when making a film that has this sort of gravitas and weight to it, that you can unintentionally start making Life of Brian, and you’ve got to watch out for that. We had takes now and then when it became a bit Monty Python, so it was good, we knew, we had the red flags. So it was good to study it ahead of time.
“Also, Moses is such an intense character, and relentless, that you had to have a little bit of a break from him mentally, otherwise I’d have been exhausted. So I was always singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” and thinking, ‘he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy’. It helped me.”
Bale admitted he did draw from other productions – but wanted to tackle this role in a unique way, differently to how Charlton Heston mastered the very same role, in the 1956 endeavour, The Ten Commandments.
“I always loved sword and sandal epics when I was growing up. BBC would usually show Ben-Hur ever Christmas and I’d get up early, by myself and watch it while my family were still sleeping. After Ridley came to me with the insane idea or playing Moses, I didn’t visit Ten Commandments first, I went to The Life of Brian, and History of the World by Mel Brooks. That was informative, and they’re great films. Then I looked at The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston, and he’s so imposing, he’s so big. I thought, well I’m not going to do that.”
When treading over territory such as this, as Darren Aranofsky did earlier in the year with Noah, filmmakers always open themselves up to scrutiny, given the themes explored and how personal they are to millions of people. But Ridley Scott – who was also in attendance, as well as the film’s chief antagonist Joel Edgerton, admitted he just had to make the film he set out to make.
“Of course they have an influence, but they don’t have an influence on what I do, nor the fact that I would decide to take this on with the greatest of respect, because I know how seriously people do take movies that are above and beyond your average entertainment,” he said. “But I try and do that every time. I knew I’d get in trouble with Black Hawk Down, and Kingdom of Heaven. But I’m one of the most popular Western world directors in the Muslim world. Because even though I did Body of Lies, the smartest person is not Russell Crowe, but the head of intelligence in Jordan. So I take great care about what I’m doing and what I’m heading in to. So I treated the entire story with the greatest of respect. It’s a very tricky tiptoe through the tulips to decide what to do, a tricky dance. But I have to make the movie I want to make.”
Given the immensity of the tale, Scott also admitted he felt comfortable tackling such an epic tale. “At this point in my career it wasn’t daunting at all – or I wouldn’t have tried it. Once I’ve got that combination of a great script and actors, it’s not daunting.”
Edgerton has one of the hardest roles to perfect, playing Rhamses as the villain he is, and yet attempting to find the human being within him. Finding a sense of compassion to help get into the head of the character.
“It’s depicted as a fascist society, and Rhamses as a very ethically upside down character in a very Hitler-esque way, and yet the story begins with these two men as friends and brothers and collaborators, complicit in many ways.
“What is interesting about the script is that it humanises these characters at the same time. Yes we want to see and depict Rhamses as a bad person because ethically his ideas are incorrect, but we see that he’s also a person. A man who loses a child, and we can relate to these things in some small way.”
Bale, who was on top form at the press conference – at one stage asking for the translator, sat in a glass box in the corner of the room to be released – also told us that when he first signed on to the project, he wasn’t quite in the best shape for the role at hand.
“I gave Ridley a fright because the iconic image of Moses is the long hair and the beard, which makes sense as he’s not going to be shaving that often. But I’d just made American Hustle, so I walked in, shaped like Santa Claus and with a shaved head, right down to the scalp,” he laughed. “I walked in to see him, and he’s a much better actor than me, because he sat there, clearly thinking ‘what have I done?” I looked the opposite of everything Moses should be. He should be gaunt, and hairy, and I was fat with no hair. I could see him desperately look like he didn’t want to recast immediately. He casually went, “hmmm – very short hair”. But we worked it out.”